The Future of Democracy Is Going to Come Down to Mueller Memes

How to convince the public of something that’s in plain sight?

The testimony of Robert Mueller.
The testimony of Robert Mueller.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

What disturbs while watching the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees question Robert Mueller is the lonely but certain knowledge that the community of spectators to which you belong should theoretically be lofty and vast—encompassing the American public, the organs of the state and the president—but is in practice vanishingly small. Very few people will actually see those seven hours of testimony with you. So what you’re witnessing, which others won’t, is a war over translation. To watch the hearings is to witness a weird middle stage of a potentially impossible mission: to compress an enormous amount of existing, already-hashed-over data—the Mueller report—into pellets the average American voter can digest and be swayed by.

There are logistical hurdles, like five-minute questioning increments and a room with poor acoustics. And there are larger ones, like a witness under terrible mental strain. The hearings were strange, anxious television: Mueller hesitated and asked for questions to be repeated, clearly under an enormous cognitive burden as he tried to confirm the particulars of a report several hundred pages long while remaining impartial, accurate, and true both to the confines the Department of Justice outlined for him and to his own principles. Rarely has a human being been so committed to divulging so little in proportion to the amount he knows and surely feels. A comparison between his agony and Attorney General William Barr’s pleasant, careless overstepping (or Donald Trump’s fluent lies) registers something about the extraordinary labor it takes to appear nonpartisan and truthfully precise in a time that punishes both.

These details both matter and don’t: The testimony was just a first draft, a messy proxy for the battle of summaries the thing will become. Each side emerged from the hearings with a video reel of selected moments—for Democrats, a revealing exchange about Trump’s culpability between Adam Schiff and Mueller; for Republicans, a moment when Mueller forgets the word conspiracy—that they will use to wage an information war for the hearts of the apathetic or confused or uncertain. A battle of memes. The question was never what will the voters think of this show? The voters were never going to watch all of Mueller’s testimony, just as they were never going to read his report. The question has evolved into something like: What clips will each side create from the footage, which of these clips will go viral, and whose set will galvanize the viewers who stumble on it more?

Given that Americans spend a ton of time reading and watching but almost none reading or watching anything really long, maybe democracy was always going to come down to memes. The Mueller report has the odd distinction of being among the most-anticipated and least-read documents in the history of the country. The neutrality and modest conclusions of the report Mueller produced meant that no one read it, and its intimations were remarkably easy to obscure for less scrupulous actors. The Democratic representatives who tried in the hearings to call attention to the report’s precisely phrased contents faced several challenges. The first was there before the hearings even began, in Barr’s utterly misleading summary of the report’s findings, which allowed “total exoneration” and “no collusion” to become entrenched as catchphrases.

The second was Mueller’s pained and noncommittal style, which Democrats battered up against throughout the hearings on Wednesday in hopes of breaking through his haggard caution on live television. He stage-managed his refusal to provide sound bites or memes quite carefully, refusing to say the word impeachment (“I think I heard you mention at least one [constitutional remedy],” he said coyly to Rep. Veronica Escobar) and refusing even to read from his own report out loud, despite repeatedly defending and affirming its contents.

The third challenge is denial. Many moderate and low-information Americans simply don’t know or don’t believe that the system has broken down as much as it has. If the attorney general of the United States said there wasn’t much in the report, they’re not inclined to believe there was. It seems crazy to think that the attorney general of the United States lied openly to the public, and the just-world fallacy can lead you to think that if things were really so bad, something would have been done. Or that a fair-minded man like Mueller would have recommended, in no uncertain terms, that action of some kind be taken.

The fourth challenge, was, put baldly, the futility of watching a group of retirement-age adults trying to teach a generation of attention-deficient Americans what the findings of the report actually were. These may be able politicians (or not), but most of them are ill-equipped to navigate the information economy that now exists, which gives you a handful of precious seconds to make a point before it brutally tunes you out.

It is to Schiff’s credit, therefore, that despite Mueller’s recalcitrance, he managed to create not one but two formidably effective moments with the former special counsel. (It’s also no coincidence that he’s still under 60.) The first came early, and you can watch it here: In this exchange, Schiff quietly lays out the extraordinary series of barbarities committed by Trump’s people, and Mueller just as quietly confirms them. It’s not theatrical, but it is—especially given how reluctant Mueller was to confirm anything at all—startling. To many, it may be persuasive. The second exchange, which took place at the end of the hearing, resulted in Mueller uncharacteristically admitting to some personal judgments. “I’d like to see if we can broaden the aperture at the end of the hearing,” Schiff said. “Receiving assistance during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do,” he said. “And a crime,” Mueller added. “And a crime,” Schiff repeated, perhaps taken aback. Mueller said the phrase again and added “in certain circumstances.” “To the degree that it undermines our democracy and institutions, we can agree it’s also unpatriotic?” Schiff asked. “True,” Mueller replied. “And wrong,” Schiff said. “True,” Mueller said.

A bit later in the exchange, Schiff lays out the stakes for national security, where seeking foreign favor can leave you open to blackmail. And Mueller agrees to all of it. If you’d been watching the whole hearing, you’d be astounded at this point by how much a noncommittal witness was suddenly agreeing to. If you hadn’t been watching earlier, though, and hadn’t witnessed Mueller’s resistance throughout the day until that point, it was less impressive. The power relies on all that came before.

This moment is still valuable! It sets out for members of the public—who, if they’ve thought of “blackmail” at all, can only chuckle at the idea of a notional pee tape—the very real ways Trump’s onetime national security adviser could, by being compromised by a foreign government himself, have compromised national security. And the entire exchange enumerates, in brutal detail, the number of crimes those in Trump’s circle committed and their motives for doing so—which boil down to money-grubbing. This is the kind of video Democrats are likely to circulate: It captures a level of criminality that much of the public has not fully registered, and anchors the list with Mueller’s formal, nearly martial assents. It stands a decent chance of galvanizing the public by briefly but thoroughly distilling parts of the report that have hitherto been all too easy for Trump and others to deny.

The right, having for a long time gone after Mueller’s integrity and competence, will no doubt produce a series of clips of him stammering, or asking for questions to be repeated, or saying he was appointed by Bush instead of Reagan. Certain spheres of the internet also became quite taken with footage of Rep. Jim Jordan questioning Mueller over why he did not indict Joseph Mifsud.

But these are clips, not memes. And the way our society metabolizes spectacles like this includes folks besides party hacks; it includes journalists and the public. Virality isn’t a formula, it’s a collaboration, and the less-invested majority of the country—if they engage at all—is likely to use these clips to generate GIFs and memes. Mueller’s phrase “I take your question” is already taking off as a sassy response to blowhards. This is dumb. It’s depressing and incommensurate with the stakes of all this. But it might not actually be any less responsible than the way journalists—a group that knows the contents of the report better than most—plan their coverage.

The struggle of the moment amounts to an enormous knowledge gap between what the average American voter knows and what a political journalist (or politician) does about the Mueller report. This gap is distressingly wide. These hearings are an attempt to bridge it. Democrats are doing their best (and it isn’t great, but it’s something) to get the contents of the report across to a public that still doesn’t grok its implications, and might not appreciate the extent to which the Republican Party is exploiting that ignorance. They’ve been assisted in no small part by how credulously the media reported Barr’s initial summary. But journalism has a bias toward the new, and so journalists who already know the contents of the report—even though the American public doesn’t—are having a hard time getting around an old tradition of equating “newsworthy” with “new.” (The New York Times began its recap thusly: “Robert S. Mueller III offered no new revelations on Wednesday … .”) That needs to change. Truth these days needs a salesman, a publicist, a videographer, and a meme-maker just to survive the onslaught of distortions, distractions, and lies. And it needs defenders willing to tell the public what is most important. And then to tell them again.